fri 19/07/2024

The Hollow Crown: Richard II, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Hollow Crown: Richard II, BBC Two

The Hollow Crown: Richard II, BBC Two

Shakespeare's ravishing history play all tressed up in transfer to TV

'Let us sit upon the ground and compare flowing locks': Ben Whishaw as a follicularly fulsome Richard II

There was some pretty serious hair on view in the BBC's new film of Richard II, a play better-known for its luxuriant verse, and well there might be, given that the adaptation came to us courtesy that most fulsomely-maned of theatre directors, Rupert Goold.

(Among his colleagues, only the RSC's Greg Doran can compete in the follicular sweepstakes.) That's all well and good, I can hear you asking, but  did Shakespeare's extravagantly lyrical rhetoric survive the stage-to-screen transfer?

The answer is yes in some places and not so well in others, but I can't imagine not being mesmerised by the overabundance of tresses on view. Leading man Ben Whishaw was one thing but who knew that David Suchet and Patrick Stewart took so splendidly to long, flowing locks?  

Goold's film, adapted with his longtime colleague Ben Power from the Bard's ceaselessly rhapsodic text, inaugurates a celluloid cycle of history plays under a larger banner title, Shakespeare Unlocked, that forms part of the Cultural Olympiad. Still to come in a subset of offerings known as The Hollow Crown are Richard Eyre directing Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays and Thea Sharrock putting Tom Hiddleston through his paces in Henry V, the Shakespeare play of the moment. And yet, Richard II poses arguably the greatest cinematic challenge of the lot, dependent as it is on soaring verbal arias that can transfix audiences in the playhouse but are trickier to navigate on screen, not least by contrast with the carousing and military derring-do that course through the sequence of Henry plays.

Goold's approach to some extent can be seen as ironic, not least when one considers the mixed-media bravado that he has brought to such stage productions as Macbeth (with Stewart in the title role) and, preeminently, Six Characters in Search of an Author, still this prolific talent's finest achievement to date. Marked out by a belligerent naturalism entirely lacking in the interpretive leaps to which Goold has been prone on stage - an RSC Merchant of Venice, for instance, set in Las Vegas - this Richard had the perverse effect of containing very little of visual interest. In which case, thank heavens for the follicular splendour - and the words. (Some will have warmed more than I did to the intermittent presence of a pet monkey.)

Whishaw has long seemed a Richard II-in-waiting, the actor's fey, doe-eyed androgyny wedded to a command of classical text that can make its untrammelled way through one or another spoken set piece. And first seen eyes fluttering, flashing a thin, coquettish smile that could dismiss onlookers as readily as it drew them near, Whishaw immediately communicated the divinely anointed manchild who, after all, was only 10 when he acceded to the throne. His cavalier "so much for that" upon the passing of Stewart's baleful John of Gaunt (pictured above) made clear early on that death doesn't seem particularly to register to a ruler who comes to discover humanity at the price of his crown; it takes Richard's surrender of authority for him to acquire a soul.


So perhaps it was inevitable that for all the visual attention paid to thrones, castles, and water (that last element a leitmotif of the text itself), Goold favoured the close-up in a somewhat monotonous attempt to burrow into this baleful king's anguished if newly awakened psyche. I've never seen a Richard on stage whose faux-narcissistic admission, "no deeper wrinkles yet", was so fully borne out, the result here of a camera busily zooming in for the facial kill well before Tom Hughes's full-lipped, smooth-cheeked Aumerle - no beard for him! - came along to administer the fatal blow. The intimacy also made possible a whispery intensity that wouldn't wash in the playhouse, where you'd never be heard beyond the second row. 

The result, oddly, was to sideline the Bolingbroke of Rory Kinnear, who seemed to spend much of the time not speaking, head cocked to one side. (On the other hand, theatre buffs will doubtless have thrilled to the mano a mano presence of two such vaunted stage Hamlets.) Far more impressive in smaller parts were Suchet as a steely Duke of York (pictured above, with Hughes behind) who appeared to have wandered in from a nearby casbah (the actor has a field day with the adjective "plume-plucked") and Lindsay Duncan as Suchet's determinedly maternal wife, who on this evidence must surely some day play Volumnia.

Playing a woman of stature transformed by parental solicitude into a "beggar" on behalf of Aumerle, her errant son, Duncan brought a touch of thespian majesty to a story of kingship laid low. And she served to remind us that Shakespeare's interest in regime change notwithstanding, he's pretty peerless when it comes to matters pertaining to family. And that in a history play cycle defined more or less entirely by men, the ladies get their moment, too. 

Whishaw has long seemed a Richard II-in-waiting, the actor's fey, doe-eyed androgyny wedded to a command of classical text

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I learned a lot from this new BBC production. The BBC claimed it was set in the Middle Ages. I never realised the Empire Windrush pulled up at Cheapside in Anno Domini 1390. And due to affirmative action many West Indians rose to prominence in civic life such as a Lord and the Bishop of Carlisle. Apparently according to the BBC the Medieval Welsh were like rejects from the Rock tribe in One Million Years BC. I was half expecting Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and a Pterodactyl to turn up. According to my history books the Welsh had discovered the technology of weaving. And what was with all that Red Indian war paint?

Word for word the same posting that you made (unless you misappropriated it) on the Telegraph website. I'm surprised that you consider such drivel worth repeating.

“This Richard had the perverse effect of containing very little of visual interest” Seriously? I thought it was an excellent, engaging production I couldn't take my eyes off and stood up very well to the Mark Rylance/Kevin Spacey/RSC Histories Cycle productions I've had the good fortune to witness onstage. And please drop the hair theme in future reviews — it just makes you look a bit silly.

This version of Richard is more than a little insulting to the viewer. We do not need to see a protagonist seated on a white donkey to understand themes of martyrdom and power. Many of Richard's best speeches were ruined by the overblown portrayal of the king as a fey weakling. By the end of the play we are meant to feel deeply - and I don't mean relieved that this awful presentation was finished. I hope the other plays in this series are better than this or I will be forced to look to the soaps for drama.

This must be the best television I have seen for a long time in which every word was so clearly articualted and with its full meaning .Brilliant Bravo to all the actors and the director for bringing it al so vividly to life .thank you

I have never seen such an inhabited and totally beievable Richard II. The subtlety of expression in Bolingbrokes eyes whilst witnessing the mercurial rather feminine rantings. It was beautiful to look at. Whyshaws performance was stunningly electrifying - a King with severe personatlity disorders so movingly and magniifcently played. He MUST be one of our very best actors.

"Very little of visual interest ' ???? My God Matt Wolf were you actually watching this with open eyes ? It was without doubt the most televisual Shakespeare production that I have ever seen on television - ever. Admittedly there are no battle scenes as in some of the other history plays, but the director & producers have expanded the Bard's intentions to add interest to the eye. The fabulous opening jousting scenes with a quite beautiful marquee, the use of the interiors and exteriors of churches & castles, flat windswept beaches, a river (moat?) into which Richard's two compatriots heads plopped into after being severed so dramatically by Bolingbrokes's forces. The dark, dank prison into which Richard was incarcerated, I could go on. Then there were the stunning costumes, emphasizing in their design both the medieval and the oriental, all exquisitely filmed with a true photographer's eye. And what is your fetish over 'hair' ? This is really a poor excuse for a review.

My family and I thoroughly enjoyed this production and look forward enormously to the following three. Not "arty" in any sense of the word, we easily followed the wonderful prose and thought it visually beautiful. Why so hung up on hair? Looking at contemporary depictions of Richard II he appears to have at least "page-boy" length hair Shakespeare to the masses.and I would think that is the norm for the period. Well done everyone concerned in the production, I think you may have successfully bought

Cinematic versions of Shakespeare's plays can often forget the text and concentrate too much on visuals and music. This production did, however, manage to combine some stunning visuals without detracting from the text. I thought the cast were excellent especially Whishaw. The only thing I did not enjoy about this production was Wolf's glib review!

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